Vacuum Pack Your Presentation

Whenever I put together any kind of presentation, be it a magic show, a talk or a theatrical piece, there is one rule I have followed over the years that has served me well. Your best bet with a presentation is to vacuum pack it. Eliminate the fluff. Suck the air out of it. Make it all meat and no veggies.

You get the point. I came to this realization years ago. I have spent a great deal of my life hanging around performers, and  performers have a tendency to compare notes. Every now and then I’d be talking with someone who had an effect in their repertoire that I also used.  Often, they would brag about how they were able to fill ten minutes  of their show with that one effect, which caught me by surprise because I only got three minutes from it.

And it’d make me wonder… should I be getting more time from it, or should they be getting less? Almost every time I come down on the side of less. And not just because that was how I did it, but because it is usually all that routine is good for.

I have sat through waaay too many Power Point presentations that could easily have been cut in half, but the presenter had to fill 30 minutes, so fill it they did. And they bored me so much that I missed the fifteen minutes of meat in their slide show. Just because you can talk ad nauseum, doesn’t mean you should make the audience nauseous.

Here is my method in a nut shell: Suck the air out of your presentation, or you will have to air the suck out of it. Vacuum pack it, and it will stay fresh.

Because if you’re fillin’ you ain’t killin’.

Creative Dissatisfaction

I’ve always believed that the majority of improvements in our lives come from people who are not happy with the previous incarnation of whatever their invention happens to be. Let me put it more plainly:  Someone looked at something and said, “I think it can be improved.”

I know money can be a great motivator, but it’s not easy to force your brain to create something out of nothing just because you want to make money. Money can be a result of an innovation (thankfully), but it seems that there is a better way to pursue money. Don’t go after cash, go after improvements.

I realize this is not ground breaking new stuff I’m writing here, but it is a process that is often overlooked. It’s what I call creative dissatisfaction. And here’s how it works: Something kind of ticks you off so you decide to fix it. Before you know it, others want your solution too, and they are willing to pay for it.

The thing I that I enjoy about innovation, is how often someone finds a need no one else even thought existed. The i-Pad fills a need, but it is a need it almost self created. People weren’t walking around frustrated that they didn’t have a device like this. Maybe a handful of people did. But when they pointed out the solution to the thing that bugged them, a few million other people said, “Yeah, we’re dissatisfied with the current crop of tablets too.”

Television picture quality has been improving for as long as I can remember. And after each improvement, most people thought we had reached the Zenith of picture quality (pun intended). But there was always a handful of others saying to themselves, “It’s not good enough.” And their unhappiness with the current state of the art led them to improve it further.

Washers and dryers now communicate with each other about the current load of laundry. The washer tells the dryer, “Hey, I just finished 20 pounds of towels in hot water with a gentle cycle of fabric softening. I’m handing it over to you now. Please dry appropriately.” That is cool, but if you had told me that washers and dryers could be improved any more over how they existed 10 years ago, I would have found that hard to believe. How could they have gotten any better I would have wondered?  Now I await the day when the machines fold the clothes after drying. Only then will I be satisfied.

Our quality of life continues to improve because there are people out there who are still not satisfied with the status quo. Everything that needs to be invented has not been invented yet. Not even close.

But the next big thing will not always present itself as a gaping hole in society that needs to be filled. Very often, it will just be a patch to a minor irritation or annoyance.

So the next time you find yourself a little frustrated at something, realize that it may be your creative muse gently tugging on your sleeve and whispering, “Fix me.”

 

First Things First, And in That Order

Every now and then I make one of those ‘aha’ discoveries that are so obvious, that the only reason I didn’t make it sooner is that I must have been purposely avoiding it. In other words, I must not have wanted to discover it because it would probably mean a shift in the way I do things, and that shift can sometimes be uncomfortable. I believe that is what Seth Godin refers to as the Lizard Brain at work. Sometimes however, I give those new ideas a chance and before long I have a hard time going back to my old ways. In fact, going back to the previous ‘system’ would now represent change that I’d like to avoid. Funny how often that shift can occur.

Here’s my recent encounter with the obvious. I had been struggling to get any creative writing done. It seemed like the day would just slip away from me, and not only would no words hit the page, but the frustration of that reality would (or should I say ‘could’) make me a slightly less pleasant person to be around. I was, and am, a big fan of the book Accidental Genius by Mark Levy, and in the past had great success using his technique of free writing. In fact, I have written about it before here, here, and here. But lately, it wasn’t working for me.

And then… I discovered why.

KenKen. Well, it wasn’t all the fault of KenKen. Sudoku, Crossword and a few other puzzles contributed to my downfall. And they did it in the most sinister and clever ways.

Of course there was the waste of productive time spent solving puzzles instead of writing. But everyone should have a hobby, and this one was mine. It relaxed me, took my mind off of my problems and made me feel smart when I solved them. That was fine. Where they did their damage, was in when I would choose to do them.

Ever since my kids were born, I had gotten into the habit of getting up even earlier than usual. Four am instead of six am. I would then make a pot of coffee, and in those beautiful, quiet two hours, sit at my computer, and solve puzzles. Two peaceful, creativity packed hours, and I would spend them putting numbers into a grid.

This was bad for two reasons. First, what a colossal waste of quiet productive time. Second, and this is where the sinister part comes in, solving puzzles is a primarily left brain function. Once I had started my day with intense left brain activity, it was nearly impossible to switch over to right brain work. I was short circuiting the creative process. Most people, including me, have a harder time getting that right brain function kicked into gear. It is even more difficult to do when you’ve already pointed your brain in the opposite direction and have built up considerable speed. Imagine trying to shift your car from reverse gear to drive at thirty miles an hour. Not a good idea.

So here’s the new system, and so far it’s working beautifully. Get up at four am, make a pot of coffee and write! Write anything that comes out. The first few days, most of my scribblings seemed to center around how much I missed doing my puzzles in the morning. But soon, I didn’t miss them and the pages started to fill up. It was beautiful.

Besides, after a long day of being productive, solving a few puzzles felt kind of rewarding.

Every now and then I have to remind myself to do first things first, and always in that order.

 

Look Who’s Talking

My wife and I like to play a game with TV commercials. We call it ‘Look Who’s Talking’, or ‘Name That Goon’ (They aren’t really goons, it’s just the best rhyme for ‘tune’ I could come up with). The object of the game is simple really. When a commercial airs, we try to see who can name the actor behind the voice first. After a while, you start to see the same names over and over. And it got me to wondering why.

Let’s just assume that it is a nice pleasant voice. There are probably some qualities to it that are reassuring and soothing. Deep voices often convey authority and can create feelings of trust. A woman’s voice can be nurturing and make us feel safe.

But when it comes to celebrities, I believe there is something else at work as well. And it falls into the category of branding. Whatever good feelings we have about an actor are transferred over into the product they are representing. That’s why the majority of voice over work is done by actors who play the hero most of the time. They at least have to be someone about whom we have good feelings. Which explains why Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan aren’t doing voice overs right now. A crook and a schnook do not evoke positive feelings.

Keifer Sutherland is the hero of TV show 24. We look up to him, trust him and know that he will do the right thing. So, even though we many not know it on a conscious level (in fact, we may not even recognize his voice in a commercial), his voice behind a product lends those same qualities to it.

So, the next time your favorite show breaks for commercial, don’t run to the kitchen. Who needs the extra calories anyway? Instead, close your eyes, listen to the voice behind the product and try to ‘Name That Goon’ (again, they are not really goons, but my rhyme dictionary didn’t return many options).

Once you have the actor named, try to think of why they were chosen. What qualities does the actor possess that the advertisers hope you associate with their product? Does it work?

And if so, is there any product out there that can benefit from having Charlie Sheen as their voice. He could use the work.

 

How I Turned a Twenty Dollar Pogo Stick Into Six Grand

Often in life, it can be the tiniest bit of extra effort that makes the difference. While I believe in putting everything you’ve got into an endeavor, it is surprising sometimes how a small thing can makes a huge difference. More than once in my life, that small thing has been the only difference.

A case in point: Back in my Los Angeles days as a budding commercial actor, you learned pretty quickly to put any unusual skill you possessed on your resume in the rare chance that a commercial would be written calling for a guy who could juggle chainsaws while riding a bull in knights armor. Since you wanted every audition you could get,this usually led to actors padding their resumes with all kinds of amazing talents. Unfortunately, a lot of those actors claimed skills they did not possess. When questioned, many would say, “If they call me and want me to play the part of a professional trapeze artist, I’ll just take a few lessons and wing it.” Most casting calls for commercials go out the day before the audition, so you would have approximately 24 hours to attain this new skill. Emergency rooms in Hollywood are filled with these people. None of them landed the commercial.

So, when an easily acquired skill is asked for, like say juggling one ball, you’d think most actors would put forth the minimum effort needed to ace the next days audition. And you’d be wrong. As an example, I offer you the Pogo Stick story.

My agent calls one day and asks if I can ride a pogo stick. I tell her I cannot. Her reply? “You’ve got three days to learn.” So, I did what I thought was logical. I went to the toy store and spent twenty bucks to buy a pogo stick. And for three days I bounced around my apartment complex courtyard. An older tenant got tired of the “boing, boing” noise and yelled out to me, “I hope you fall and break your neck.” But, I persisted. My hands blistered from the death grip on the handle, but still I bounced. And after three days, I could stay up for over a minute. As long as that was all they needed, I was ready.

When I showed up at the audition, I was the only one who brought his own pogo stick. (With a newly padded handle I might add). About three dozen people were there, but since the auditions were going on all day, they may have been seeing a hundred actors. All of them had three days advance notice, but only one bought a pogo stick. Me. None of them had even bothered to borrow one and practice, but all of them told their agent they could do it.

Guess who got the part? Me, of course. When I got my chance and bounced all over, they nearly hoisted me up on their shoulders in victory. Finally, someone who could actually ride one of these things! It was as if Pavarotti had come for a singing audition and all the other tenors had laryngitis.

For my efforts, I was paid $350 for a day of shooting, plus another $300 for a wardrobe fitting day, which took an hour. Toss in the residuals I made since the commercial ran in multiple regions, and my total take was about $6,000. My total time on screen was two or three seconds. Two grand a second is pretty good pay. And this was in 1990.

All of this to ask, is there some tiny thing you can do that will put you ahead of the pack? I am often surprised at the little things people overlook doing that can make a difference. Maybe we overlook them because we are certain all the others are already doing them. And just maybe, those are the things that will matter the most.

How to get noticed in Hollywood for 4 bucks

Trying to get  noticed in Hollywood isn’t easy, but if you can pull it off, the rewards can be fantastic. I have watched a few friends go from waiting tables one day, to having their former restaurant cater their celebrity parties.

About 20 or so years ago, I was one of those guys trying to break into TV Commercials. Even in the late 80’s, a decent national spot for a company like Budweiser or Honda could earn you upwards of twenty grand. For about one days work! Two if you had to go in for a wardrobe fitting (which you were paid extra for). It’s like hitting the lottery, only I think the Power Ball odds are a little bit better.

The problem of course, is how can you get noticed among the masses?  A friend proved just how futile the undertaking could be. He ran a tiny, 3 line notice in the back of a trade magazine mentioning that he was in pre-production on a film. One week later, his mailbox was jammed with pictures and resumes. Nearly 1000 of them. And I watched him toss most of them in the garbage with barely a 2 second glance. That was all the time he could afford to devote to the task.

So, armed with this insight, I realized if I wanted to get more than a 2 second glance, I had to give the person receiving my photo a reason to. And, I had to do this on my own since I didn’t have an agent. That’s when I turned to Wooly Willy.

You might remember this toy as a child. Magnetic shavings in a plastic bubble that allowed you to draw facial hair on the character inside. That’s Willy in the photo. The larger version was called Dapper Dan. I bought a few dozen of the Dapper Dans, carefully pulled them apart and reassembled them with my 8 X 10 photo inside. It took about a week of work and the cost was close to four dollars each. I then took them personally to casting directors around L.A.

The reaction was great, at least verbally. All of them said it was a great idea and that they would never throw it away since it was too unusual to toss with the rest of the submissions. The real question was, would it work?

It worked beautifully actually. The phone rang, auditions came my way, jobs were offered (and taken), and a top commercial agent, after seeing the initiative I had taken, offered to represent me.

Did I land any big commercials? No, but I did get one decent one for Long John Silvers that earned me about six thousand dollars. (A story about a pogo stick for another post some day) All told, the $400 investment probably returned twenty grand. Not bad.

Years later, I was at a casting directors office. Not to audition for anything, but in a technical capacity. That day they happened to be casting young kids for a commercial. To keep the young ones occupied, they had a bunch of toys spread out on a table for the kids to play with. There, in the middle of the table, was one very well worn ‘toy’. A Dapper Dan with the original cartoon swapped and an actors photo put in. My photo. True to their word, the casting director never threw it away.

Sometimes, all it takes is a silly idea.

How To Write A TV Commercial In Ten Minutes Part 2

In part one of this article, we explored the three basic rules to apply if you were interested in writing a cliche TV commercial. Judging by the number of these I see on TV in any given day, I think it is fair to assume that quite of few advertisements are put together this way. To recap, here are the guidelines:

1) Women are smart, men are stupid

2) Kids are smarter than adults

3) Animals are smarter than people

Using that info, let’s see if I can write a commercial that will resemble about 60%  of the ones you see airing today. We need a product to promote. How about roadside assistance?

Our commercial opens with a man, his wife and two kids in a minivan driving to some unknown destination. The man, distracted by a billboard for cheap fireworks, does not see the animated beaver on a scooter crossing in front of them. His ever alert wife, after putting down her copy of Einsteins biography to mull over the Theory of Relativity, does see the beaver and warns her husband to veer left. Instead he veers right and hits a huge pot hole which causes a blowout of the front tire. The man covers his eyes and the woman steers them to safety.

After surveying the damage, the man says the situation is hopeless because he can’t remember how to change a tire. The wife then reminds him that she talked him into purchasing roadside assistance when they bought the van and that they could call for help. He no sooner agrees to do so, when a service truck pulls up. In the back seat of the van, we see two smiling pre-teens who point to their smart phones and say in unison, “We’ve already send out a Tweet!” To which mom and dad reply, “You kids, saving the day again. What would we do without you?”

As the service truck pulls away, fresh tire in place, the kids look out the window and say, “The tow truck guy forgot to put the lug nuts back on!” Just then, the animated beaver who nearly lost his life thanks to the hapless dads incompetence, rides in on his scooter and puts the lug nuts back on. Our family drives off to get some cheap fireworks.

Granted, I’ve taken quite a bit of poetic license here, but the final product is not that far off from some of the fare offered today as fresh and original. And it’s not that this is a bad commercial, it’s just that when a large percentage of ads follow this formula, they start to lose their effectiveness. And worse, I think it’s lazy.

If your able to put something togehter this easily, then you’re either a genius, or you’re in a rut.

Here’s part 1 of the post. How To Write A TV Commercial In Ten Minutes Part 1

 

 

How to Write a TV Commercial in 10 Minutes Part 1

Sitting through a recent Twilight Zone marathon, I learned a few things. First, it’s still one of the best shows that ever hit the airwaves. Second,  after absorbing hundreds of commercials, I discovered that a great majority of them could be written by almost anyone who could follow a few basic tenets. I would say that at least half of all advertising on TV falls into these cliches.

Most commercials follow a pattern I call, Problem, Product, Promised Land. You start with a problem, introduce XYZ product in order to solve it and then you enter the promised land of happiness.  To run a successful cliche ad campaign, there are a few rules you should apply.  Here they are:

Rule #1) Women are smart, men are stupid.

You can ignore all the other guidelines, and still produce a winning ad with this one. Always depict men as idiots, and women with the superior intellect. Women will know more than men about about everything, including lawn mowers,  barbecues, race cars and even impotence. On rare occasions a woman can be shown as mentally inferior to a man, as long a she is the gorgeous, ditsy type. You can pull this off because men don’t care and ordinary women are able to look down upon her.

The ONLY time a man can appear smarter than  a woman is when he is what I call ‘The Intruder’. This man will not be the woman’s husband or boyfriend, he will be a stranger, like Mr. Clean or the Fiber Bar guy. He will usually burst upon the scene to solve whatever problem is at hand, which is kind of creepy in and of itself. Even though he is smart, the only reason he is needed in the first place is that the woman’s significant other is a complete dolt. She would have figured out a solution if she wasn’t weighed down with an idiot.

Rule #2) Kids are smarter than adults.

Lest you think women and minorities are at the top of the intellectual heap, think again. If you really want a solution to your problem, consult a child. In TV land, the younger they are, the smarter they are. Grown-ups are puppets to be manipulated for the relief of boredom and acquisition of goodies. Not much different than  government workers.  It is even better if they can cause pain and embarrassment to their elders.  It’s a good thing these TV parents have children, otherwise they probably couldn’t tie their shoes.

Rule #3) Animals are smarter than people.

Thank goodness for chattering chipmunks, finicky felines and cunning koalas. If you cannot come up with any other idea for your product, just toss in an animal; give it some clever dialog and viola, you have an instant hit! Animated ones are even better. Be sure to imbue them with human like attributes they don’t really possess. The critters must outsmart humans, be more considerate, and if possible, rescue the helpless, clueless bipeds from a dangerous or near fatal situation.  They know what’s best for everyone and believe the world would be better if every person lived according to their rules. In other words, they are a lot like politicians.

 

Those are the guidelines. In the next post, I will try to write a modern day commercial using them. The result may look like any of a number of commercials running today.

Here’s part 2 of How To Write A TV Commercial In Ten Minutes

 

 

Free Writing Part 3

Free writing is a great exercise to unlock your creative side, and like any exercise you will get better at it over time. However, just like in physical fitness, your technique can always be tweaked here and there to help you get the most out of the exercise.

So here are a few of my discoveries using free writing. :

1) Don’t look at the paper as you write! By not looking at the page, you won’t be tempted to go back and correct mistakes. If you allow corrections a bunch of times pretty soon nothing but correcting is getting done. Do look up occasionally however, just to be sure your computer hasn’t frozen and ten minutes of writing isn’t recorded. Don’t ask me how I know this can happen.

2) Move as swiftly as possible. Every time you stop the flows gets interrupted.  If you have nothing to write about, write about having nothing to write about. Soon enough, you’ll get back to creating. Just put it all down and deal with the mess later.

3) I tend to write in Microsoft word so I like to hit the ‘Enter’ key frequently, especially if I feel I’ve come to the end of a thought. Then, when I edit later, I switch the page into ‘Outline Mode’. This allows me to move chunks of text around quite easily by just dragging them.

4) Ten minute sessions are just for starters. You want to work up to a good thirty minutes every day.

5) Try not to do too much left brain activity beforehand. I used to solve Crosswords and Sudokus puzzles when my brain was fresh, then I’d be surprised how hard it was to get creative. Start with right brain activity. It’s easier to switch to logic after.

That’s the short version of it. If you want to know more, here’s a link to the book. You can probably pick it up used for pretty cheap, but if the used copies are anything like mine, they’ll be all marked up.

Free Writing Part 1

Free Writing Part 2

 

Free Writing Part 2

 

Here’s why free writing helps you tap into the creative side of your brain.

When we write, we must resist the temptation to edit and proofread as we go along. If we edit and proofread as we create, we limit the amount of original content we can create. The editor and proofreader are the left brain jerks that get in the way of good creative flow. If you had an actual editor and proofreader in the room looking over your shoulder and stopping you to make corrections every time you misspelled a word or used incorrect punctuation you’d never get anything written.

If the editor kept rearranging text as you went along, you’d be lucky to finish a single paragraph. Yet this is what we do every time we sit down to write. We invite those two into the room with us, give them a seat on either side, and invite them to stop us as often as they feel like. Then we wonder why nothing ever hits the page. Your best bet is to work alone.

But, before you start the editing process, knock out todays ten minute writing session. There are two reasons for this:

  1. First, even though yesterdays session is long over, your subconscious is still playing with some of that material. It just might come out better today.
  2. Second, since it’s harder to fire up the right brain after the left, you will probably find it a lot easier to put the editing of yesterdays material off.

So now that you’ve written for 10 minutes or so without editing and set it aside for a day, what comes next?  Chances are really good that you’ve got a lot of crap on the paper. But you might also discover that there are a few nuggets in the rubble you’ve created, and those are the things we want to dig out.  Granted, there will be days when ALL of what you’ve written is unusable. In time though, you will find that each day you produce better and more usable material.

Once you’ve sorted out the wheat form the chaff, you’ll find that you might have the makings of a complete article, blog post or White Paper. If so, great! Put the finishing touches on it and put it out there. If it doesn’t feel quite complete, that’s OK too. Just let it ruminate in the noggin for a few days, and use it as a jumping off place for another days free writing. Eventually you may find a gem inside.

In part 3, I’ll cover a few of my tips and discoveries.

 

Free Writing Part 1

Free Writing Part 3